Unmanned Aerial Systems… the horseless carriage in the sky

Scrambling to meet commanders’ insatiable demands for unmanned aircraft, the Air Force is launching two new training programs, including an experimental one that would churn out up to 1,100 desperately needed pilots to fly the drones over Iraq and Afghanistan.

A senior Air Force officer said that by the end of September 2011, the goal is to have 50 unmanned combat air patrols operating 24 hours a day, largely over Iraq and Afghanistan. Currently there are 30.

To generate the pilots for the increased flights, the Air Force hopes to create separate pilot pipelines for its manned and unmanned aircraft, said Col. Curt Sheldon, assistant to the director of air operations for unmanned aircraft issues. Until now, Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) pilots have had to complete at least one tour of flight duty before moving to the drone jobs.

Predators are playing a crucial role on the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan, providing real-time surveillance video to troops on the ground, targeting and firing Hellfire anti-tank missiles at militants, and homing in on enemy efforts to plant roadside bombs.

In North Dakota, officials announced in August that the University of North Dakota has a share in a $50 million Air Force contract to train Predator pilots, working with a team of global defense and aviation technology companies. The school also plans a four-year degree program for students who want careers in fields involving unmanned aerial systems.

To date, the Air Force has been using experienced fighter pilots to operate the drones. But as the demand has skyrocketed, the service has struggled to find enough pilots to fill both the manned and unmanned jobs.

Meanwhile, the test program for non-pilots is aimed at Air Force captains who have four to six years of experience, but no flight training. Their schooling would take up to nine months, and they would not have to meet all of the more stringent standards that jet fighter pilots must.